With just one game separating the wild-card leaders and runners-up entering Monday's action, both leaders lost, but only one runner-up, the Rays, capitalized on that opportunity to pull into a tie for the final playoff spot in their league. It didn't hurt that the Rays were facing something less than the Yankees' best, including a pitcher making just his second major league start and working with a 65-pitch limit. Meanwhile, the only other team that remained alive for a wild-card berth before Monday night, the Angels, were eliminated.
1. James Shields pitched the Rays into a tie for the wild card, while the Yankees continued to rest key players. Shields fell two strikes shy of his 12th complete game, holding a Yankees lineup that did not include Mark Teixeira or Nick Swisher to two runs over 8 2/3 innings as the Rays beat New York 5-2 (RECAP | BOX) to pull into a tie for the American League wild card with two games left. For the second time in the last week, the Yankees countered Shields with rookie Hector Noesi, who had not made a major league start prior to last Wednesday. Noesi, who was forced into the Yankee rotation by Phil Hughes' bad back, failed to pitch out of the third inning in either game, but last week the Yankees scored four against Shields, and seven Yankee relievers held the Rays to the two runs Noesi allowed. Monday night, the Rays pushed insurance runs across against September call-ups Raul Valdes and George Kontos as Shields faced just one over the minimum after the third inning until walking Eric Chavez with his 117th pitch and yielding to Kyle Farnsworth for the final out.
The Yankees will try to piece together another game out of their bullpen on Wednesday, giving the Rays an excellent chance for a win behind David Price, and, given Joe Girardi's complaints about having just one day off before the Division Series begins on Friday, seem likely to continue to run out something less than their best lineup in the season's final two days.
2. The Red Sox's collapse is nearly complete. Josh Beckett gave up six runs to the Orioles for the second time in the last week as the Red Sox lost 6-3 to the Orioles (RECAP | BOX | HIGHLIGHTS), their fourth loss to Baltimore in five games dating to last Monday. The loss dropped the Red Sox's September record to 6-19 (.240) and marked the 18th time in those 25 games that they allowed six or more runs. They are now averaging 6.4 runs allowed per game this month.
Boston's season now depends on Tuesday starter Erik Bedard, who failed to pitch out of the third inning in his return from a knee injury last week, and possibly Jon Lester working on short rest on Wednesday after going 0-3 with a 10.54 ERA over his last three starts. The Red Sox reportedly tried to trade for the Mets' Chris Capuano to have him start against the Yankees this past Sunday, and TheBoston Globe's Nick Cardafo tweeted Monday that the Sox are still trying to acquire a starting pitcher to throw in place of Lester on Wednesday, both because they'd rather have Lester start a one-game playoff against the Rays on regular rest on Thursday or Game One of the Division Series on Friday and out of pure desperation. The Red Sox are still tied for the wild-card lead after Monday night's loss, but it's hard to picture them playing in the Division Series on Friday.
3. The Phillies gave the Braves their best and a reason to worry. The Phillies ran out all eight of their primary regulars on Sunday for the first time since their clinching game against the Cardinals on Sept. 17 and snapped the intervening eight-game losing streak with a win over the Mets behind six strong innings from Roy Halladay. On Monday, they did it again, with Cliff Lee starting against the Braves. It's hard to fault Atlanta for losing 4-2 (RECAP | BOX) to a full-strength Phillies team, but unless the Cardinals get swept by the Astros, it looks like they'll have to beat Philly's best at least once over the next two days as Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels are scheduled to take the hill for the Phils.
If that sounds familiar, it's because the Braves were in a nearly identical situation last year. With two games left to play, the Braves held a one-game lead in the wild card, were hosting the Phillies for the season's final series (of which they dropped the first game), and were scheduled to face both Oswalt and Hamels. The difference being that last year it was the Padres who were threatening Atlanta, and Oswalt and Hamels both pitched in the season finale for just three combined innings. This year, however, with Lee set to pitch Game 2 of the Division Series, Oswalt and Hamels will both make normal starts in this series, which will make it significantly more difficult for the Braves to repeat as the NL's wild card, despite the considerable advantage of having a one-game lead with only two left to play.
4. The Cardinals failed to capitalize. The Cardinals could have echoed the Rays by pulling into a tie for the wild card, but despite an eighth-inning double by Lance Berkman that drove home Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday, tying the game at 4-4, Octavio Dotel blew it in the 10th inning for a 5-4 loss (RECAP | BOX).
The Cardinals have been as hot as the Red Sox have been cold. Monday's loss was just their ninth in 30 games dating to Aug. 25, but of those nine losses, just two have been charged to a starting pitcher (both to Jake Westbrook, who will start Tuesday). In their previous two losses, which came against the Mets on Thursday and the Cubs on Friday, the bullpen allowed 11 runs in the eighth and ninth innings alone. This performance wasn't nearly as egregious as the 'pen allowed just one 10th-inning run on a Brian Bogusevic double off Dotel and a pair of bunts after five scoreless innings of relief. Really, Jaime Garcia's poor start (4 IP, 4 R) was the real culprit here, but the fact remains that, with the Braves ripe for the picking, the St. Louis bullpen has lost three of the Cardinals' last five games, a win in any one of which would have them tied for the wild-card lead right now.
5. With the Angels eliminated, four teams fight for two spots. Given the fact that Kendrys Morales never returned from his broken ankle and how disastrous the Vernon Wells trade proved to be, it's quite impressive that the Angels stayed alive all the way to the third-to-last day of the season. Then again, if the Red Sox hadn't collapsed, they would have been eliminated from the wild-card race a while ago. Instead, they were eliminated Monday night after losing 4-3 to the Rangers (RECAP | BOX) at home in the opening game of a series that once looked like it would settle the AL West race.
That leaves the Rays, Red Sox, Braves, and Cardinals as the only teams whose postseason fates have yet to be determined. The Braves could clinch the wild card on Tuesday with a win and a Cardinals loss, but the AL wild card will go down to the season's final day, if not beyond.